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This book focuses on working class civilian men who as a result of working in reserved occupations were exempt from enlistment in the armed forces. It utilises fifty six newly conducted oral history interviews as well as autobiographies, visual sources and existing archived interviews to explore how they articulated their wartime experiences and how they positioned themselves in relation to the hegemonic discourse of military masculinity. It considers the range of masculine identities circulating amongst civilian male workers during the war and investigates the extent to which reserved workers draw upon these identities when recalling their wartime selves. It argues that the Second World War was capable of challenging civilian masculinities, positioning the civilian man below that of the ‘soldier hero’ while, simultaneously, reinforcing them by bolstering the capacity to provide and to earn high wages, both of which were key markers of masculinity.
The chapter examines the consensus among historians that civilian men were compared unfavourably to the disciplined soldier, were emasculated by women’s new wartime roles and were rendered invisible in wartime representations. Having established the high status enjoyed by the ‘soldier hero’ in wartime discourse and by contrast, the fragile position of the male civilian, with reference to Connell’s concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’, the chapter asserts that the construction of masculinity in fact remained open to contestation. Sources where the reserved man are depicted in a positive way are analysed. The chapter examines the rich array of source material that historians can, but have so far failed to, draw upon, including archival documents, visual sources and our newly conducted oral history interviews.
This chapter provides an examination of the policy of reservation in the two world wars. In total war, industry was in direct competition with the military for a limited supply of men. The state needed to mobilise labour just as much as it did combatants to fill the ranks of the armed services. Both wars witnessed increased government control to direct manpower to where it was needed. Despite attempts to retain men with essential skills on the home front during the First World War, too many skilled men were able to enlist into the forces. Those men who remained on the home front were derided as shirkers and cowards. Civilian men therefore had to negotiate their relegation to the subordinate status of unmanly ‘other’. Whereas errors were made during the First World War, with the government lurching from one manpower crisis to another, a more systematic approach was adopted in the Second with a Schedule of Reserved Occupations. The raising of an ‘industrial army’, which was merely rhetoric in the First World War, became a reality in the Second.
Chapter three examines reactions to reserved status. For many (particularly) young men who remained in civilian occupations the slight to their masculinities was keenly felt, even after the passage of several decades. Indeed, half of our interviewees sought to evade their reserved status and tried, sometimes in increasingly desperate ways, to enlist in the military and be in uniform. When this was denied many poignantly expressed their understandings of their wartime lives as ‘ordinary’ and ‘dead’, with one interviewee even describing himself as a ‘nobody’, thereby seemingly confirming the emasculation theory. However, half of our interviewees made no attempt to enlist, suggesting they were comfortable with their reserved status and contesting the perception that civilian masculinities were challenged.
This chapter reconstructs the working lives of reserved men during wartime, drawing upon a wide range of sources, including oral testimonies and autobiographies. It contrasts this with the 1930s Depression. Whilst work experience varied widely across reserved occupations during wartime, what comes through the evidence is a pervasive intensification of work and a deep commitment to work as patriotic endeavour, commonly expressed in what we term ‘graft and sacrifice narratives’. In critically examining the emasculation thesis through the prism of lived experience, daily working lives and personal narratives the chapter concludes that civilian male identities in wartime were complex and contested. Young reserved workers may well have felt the cultural censure and slight on their manhood which went along with not being in uniform. However, with full employment, demand for industrial skills and experience, good wages and empowered trade unions there were many ways that reserved men could maintain and reconstruct breadwinner masculinity and position themselves discursively as superior to women through their wartime work.
This chapter investigates how reserved workers bodies were affected by the pressures of war and prevailing work-health cultures in wartime. Occupational medicine, welfare and rehabilitation expanded during hostilities. Concurrently, the pressures of war production led directly to a rise in occupational injuries, disabilities and disease. In this context, there were threats to embodied masculinity as well as opportunities to rebuild it. Reserved men’s bodies were subject to an unprecedented level of control in the workplace as well as medical surveillance which posed a threat to male identities constructed around notions of independence, discretion, skill and autonomy in the labour process. At the same time, however, full employment and the pace of work enabled labouring bodies to be reconstructed after the ravages of the Depression. Moreover, an alternative site of masculinity could be drawn upon in narratives about the heightened hazards and exhausting nature of wartime work regimes and air raids. The exposure of bodies to increased risks in wartime enabled reserved men to rebuild their sense of manliness and enact patriotic masculinity.
Chapter six explores reserved men’s lives outside of work, examining how war impacted on their social, domestic and romantic lives. While the war was a time of upheaval and uncertainty, for many of our interviewees their lives remained remarkably constant in many ways. Sport, both spectating and playing, as well as cinema featured prominently in interviewees’ accounts. Moreover, the war brought adventure for some in the form of bombing raids and civil defence duties. Interviewees were, however, reluctant to admit to having leisure time in their narratives which instead emphasised hard graft. This appears to confirm the emasculation thesis in that they felt compelled to downplay their leisure activities lest that be seen as an admittance of ‘shirking’, a term that had been in circulation during the First World War and was resurrected in the Second. Yet unbidden revelations showed that, for the majority, they were able to enjoy their wartime youth, engaging in activities, such as sports, pub-going and courting, that underscored their manliness.
Chapter seven examines two aspects crucial to the construction of post-war official memories of reserved workers: public memorialisation and cultural representation. It discusses several memorials to civilian workers, including the Merchant Navy and the fire service, and analyses a range of literary, filmic and televisual depictions, including A Family at War (1970-2) and Goodnight Sweetheart (1993-9), in order to illustrate how reserved workers have been largely forgotten despite their crucial wartime contributions. The emasculation thesis appears to be confirmed by their omission in cultural memory.
This chapter asserts that the emasculation thesis is flawed, risking flattening out the incongruities and ambiguities of civilian working class male experience in the Second World War. The impact of the war on the identities of male workers was, instead, complex and sometimes contradictory.